1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”
2 So the first angel went and poured his bowl on the earth, and a foul and painful sore came on those who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped its image.
3 The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.
4 The third angel poured his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel of the waters say,
“You are just, O Holy One, who are and were, for you have judged these things;
6 because they shed the blood of saints and prophets, you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
7 And I heard the altar respond, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”
8 The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch them with fire; 9 they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.
10 The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, 11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.
12 The sixth angel poured his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east. 13 And I saw three foul spirits like frogs coming from the mouth of the dragon, from the mouth of the beast, and from the mouth of the false prophet. 14 These are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. 15 (“See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.”) 16 And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon.
17 The seventh angel poured his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” 18 And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a violent earthquake, such as had not occurred since people were upon the earth, so violent was that earthquake. 19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. God remembered great Babylon and gave her the wine-cup of the fury of his wrath. 20 And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found; 21 and huge hailstones, each weighing about a hundred pounds, dropped from heaven on people, until they cursed God for the plague of the hail, so fearful was that plague.
The final cycle of judgments begins with the seven bowls held by the seven angels. There are many similarities in this scene with the seven seals in Revelation 6-8:4 and the seven trumpets in Revelation 8:5-11:13 which I explore in greater depth in the exploration of Revelation 6, but with this cycle there are several parallels with the signs and wonders, or plagues as they are commonly known, from Exodus 7-12. The Exodus is the defining narrative of the Hebrew people and one thing we have seen from Revelation is John’s deep familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures. As I mentioned when I wrote about the plagues in Exodus and as I have mentioned throughout this exploration of Revelation one of the often-unnoticed portions of these passages is the divine restraint that is exercised. Throughout Revelation there has been a desire for repentance, for those who have allied themselves with the forces opposed to God and creation to change their allegiance. Revelation operates under the prophetic hope that every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that God is the Lord and master of the earth. But here, echoing the language of Jesus with Nicodemus in the gospel of John we will find that ‘this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3: 19)
The pouring of libations as an offering to a god was practiced by cultures throughout the Greco-Roman world including in Jewish worship at the temple, but here we see the practice inverted: instead of the faithful devotees of a deity pouring out wine or blood to appease a deity now it is the God of Israel who has the angels of God pour out the wine of God’s wrath upon God’s adversaries on earth. In chapter fourteen God trod the winepress of the harvested grapes and what came forth was blood, now we will see the harvest of the earth returned to the earth. The angel of the sea will proclaim that God is just for what God is doing, and those in the altar can also celebrate the long-awaited justice as the final bowls are poured and God’s judgment is finally ended.
The first bowl causes those who have the mark of the beast to have a painful sore. Much like the boils of Exodus 9: 8-12, the plague is painful but not fatal and still allows people a time to change their allegiance. There is time for repentance and in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures the expectation would be that plagues like the ones throughout this chapter would be divine judgment and the proper response would be to seek out how to reconcile oneself with the offended deity. As Craig Koester can state about this first bowl:
Yet there is a divine restraint. Those who received the beast’s mark seemed to escape the threat of death under the beast, while those who refused the mark were to be killed (13:15). God’s plague is not a simple reversal of this practice. Painful though it is, the sore that God inflicts on the followers of the beast is less severe than the death that the beast inflicts upon the followers of the Lamb. (Koester, 2014, p. 654)
The second and third bowls cause the waters of the earth (first the sea and then the streams and springs) to become blood. There is a sense of justice that those who have poured out the blood of the saints and martyrs are now forced to drink blood from their own wells. Their own actions which forced the creation to drink up the blood of the fallen now sees the creation returning to the people the drink which the soil has drunk on the field of war or from sites of execution and coliseums throughout the empire. The Hebrew people often associated angels with being associated with elements like fire, water, thunder and here the angel of the water proclaims the justice of the command of God to cause bloody waves to come upon the shore and bloody rivers and springs to provide an additional sign of God’s judgment. Yet, even here there is not death. Much like the transformation of the Nile River to blood (Exodus 7: 14-25) there is a chance for life to continue and for repentance to occur. Yet, God has heard the suffering of God’s people and God is now judging those who have oppressed the people and the creation.
The fourth angel’s bowl being poured upon the sun does not have a parallel among the signs and wonders in Egypt, but it continues the use of the creation as an instrument of God’s judgment. Yet, even this fiery wrath does not bring about repentance, in fact it brings about the opposite. Those who remain aligned with the beast and with Satan will not change their allegiance at this point so instead of pleading for God’s forgiveness or mercy they curse God. Similarly, the darkness which plunges the empire of the beast into darkness may cause people to gnaw their tongues in agony (a phrase with a similar meaning to gnashing of teeth) and for a second time to curse God. In the signs and wonders in Egypt darkness was the penultimate sign and it showed the powerlessness of the Egyptian gods (particularly Ra) to oppose the Lord, the God of Israel (Exodus 10: 21-29). Here the beast and the forces of the beast are also powerless in comparison to God’s might.
Like Egypt gathering its forces for a decisive elimination of the people of God after the signs and wonders in the Exodus, the first six bowls cause the forces opposed to God to assemble for a final conflict. The drying up of the Euphrates can allow the people of God to remember how God would allow the people of God to pass through the Red Sea under Moses (Exodus 14), the Jordan River under Joshua, (Joshua 3), or how Elijah and Elisha could pass through the Jordan in 2 Kings 2. Another level of memory may associate the Euphrates with the Assyrian and Babylonian empires who conquered Israel and Judah respectively, since both empires were based along the Euphrates. Finally, the Euphrates formed a barrier between the Roman empire and the Parthians empire to the east. The kings from the east may refer to the fear that the Parthian empire would someday invade Rome, or it may refer to a tradition that emperor Nero would return with a large force from the Parthians were some believed he had fled to, or it could refer to the idea of a great gathering of the kings of the earth for a final war to end all wars against each other and the forces of God.
The frog like demonic spirits which come from the mouth of the dragon, the beast and false prophet and speak with their words to deceive in opposition to God. On the one hand, the frog like spirits link this passage with the frogs of Exodus 8:1-15 but these take a much more active role in the movement towards the final conflict. In Revelation they are the response of the adversaries of God in response to the judgment being poured out upon the kingdom of the beast. They rally those loyal to the beast to remain unified in their opposition to the reign of God. To the early Christians the military might of the empire must have seemed to be an indomitable force and yet, amid the assembling of military might we are reminded that Christ is coming at a time when we do not expect. Christ breaks in like a thief in the night and these followers of Christ are to remain faithful even when they may appear to be powerless.
Armageddon, or Harmegedon, most likely links the Hebrew word for hill or mountain (har) with Megiddo. Megiddo is located on the Jezreel plain on the route linking Egypt with Syria and is a place of several conflicts in the scriptures including Deborah’s victory over Sisera and the Canaanites (Judges 5: 19) and it is the region where King Ahaziah (2 Kings 2: 27) and King Josiah of Judah (23:29) die in battle. The connection with Revelation, particularly by the spelling and content, is most likely Zechariah 12: 11 where God intervenes to provide victory against an enemy who is threatening the people of Judah:
On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plains of Meggido.
As Zechariah continues to move towards its climax the nations will gather against Jerusalem and as half of the city is cut off God finally intervenes and goes forth to fight against the nations. John frequently joins multiple passages together in Revelation’s imagery and here the mountains probably come from the invasion of the forces of Gog and Magog, which will be referenced in Revelation 19.
Regardless of geography or scriptural references the progression of the narrative is easy to follow: in response to the actions of God in judgment the forces opposed to God’s reign unite in a common location for a final stand. The dragon, who was already thrown out of heaven in Revelation 12, and his allies prepare for a final act of defiance against God’s will.
With the final bowl poured out and the declaration of the completion of the cycle the earth and skies react in judgment against the city and the forces opposed to God. The metaphorical telling of the judgment of Babylon (Rome) will continue in Revelation 17-18, but here in a hailstorm far more violent than the lethal thunder and hail of Exodus 9: 13-35 and an earthquake unlike any the world had recorded the power of God’s among the creation is unleashed and the great city along with the cities of the nations fell. The disasters in the vision would be rightly called ‘acts of God’ showing God’s judgment upon those who continue to hold to the dragon and the beasts in their allegiance. Yet, unlike Pharaoh who can declare after the hailstones, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is right, and I and my people are in the wrong.” (Exodus 9: 27), the people who have received the mark of the beast curse (literally blaspheme) God for a third time in the chapter. With the nations assembled for war the time of waiting is finally ended. Those who still resist the oncoming reign of God now have come to the end of God’s restraint. It is a time of great reversals, which reminds me of the language of the extended judgment of Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, particularly:
Flee from the midst of Babylon, save your lives, each of you!
Do not perish because of her guilt, for this is the time of the LORD’s vengeance;
he is repaying her what is due.
Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, making all the earth drunken;
the nations drank of her wine, and so the nations went mad. Jeremiah 51: 6-7
Now Babylon, the beast, the dragon and all the other forces opposed to God have gone mad and now they must drink the cup of God’s fury, the justice of the slain. In the following two chapters as Babylon falls and the princes and merchants mourn for her they will, in the language of Jeremiah 51: 8-9 find that there is no balm that can heal the fallen city. The cry for her judgment has reached the ears of God, the harvest of their actions has been turned into the bloody waters they drink, and their opposition to God is leading them to their destruction.